The Origins of Superstition at Sea

12th May 2016


It is fair to say that the profession of sailing is one of the most superstitious. There are countless superstitions which relate to safety and luck whilst on the seas and, although many no longer apply, some of these still remain on sailor’s minds today.

Horace Beck spent his life gathering and studying the folklore of the seas throughout the 20th century. He stated: “Men who follow the sea are the most superstitious lot of people on earth” in the book “Folklore at Sea”, which was published by the Mystic Seaport Museum, located in Mystic, Connecticut. But this is perhaps an unfair statement, considering other professions including hunters and shepherds are also highly superstitious.

But where do these superstitious originate? Are they based on events which have actually happened, or are they imagined during the long and tiresome days at sea? Believe it or not – there is a scientific explanation behind such beliefs.

It is thought that those who work in unpredictable environments, yet also rely on them, in addition to being lonely, tired or anxious, may rely on such beliefs. These people will search for any sense of additional security, whilst also seeking to predict and avoid danger or misfortune.

As remains the case today, sailors relied on being able to predict the weather prior to embarking on any voyage. Today, we are able to take advantage of reliable forecasts via satellites, but it wasn’t this easy in the 19th century. Instead, sailors were required to look to the sun, moon and stars in an attempt to predict weather activity. Even songs were thought up in an attempt to help sailors remember the conditions of the seas.

If the sun sets clear as a bell,

It’s going to blow sure as hell.

Red sun in the morning, sailors take warning,

Red sun at night, sailors delight.


Many sailors would combine well-tried knowledge with magic and amulets. This would explain why small fishing boats featured a painted eye on the bow, whilst larger ships have a figurehead which looks out to sea. It is believed that these features would be able to “see” oncoming dangerous conditions before the look-out. Even today, a figurehead is positioned under the mast of the Royal Clipper, providing a nod to the past.

Cats have long been associated with good luck on board a vessel, but cats with six toes were considered to be magical because they were different. Today, this can also be explained scientifically as a physical anomaly known as polydactylism.

Many sailors were convinced they had seen various sea monsters or Klaubautermann (a mythical water kobold that is thought to have appeared before sailors) during their travels. However, again, there is a scientific explanation behind these claims. In 1972, Dr. Glin Bennet of the University of Bristol interviewed each of the 34 participants of a single-handed transatlantic yacht race. Most had had inexplicable experience – but had never seen any form of monster or entity.

One sailor, having spent 56 hours at the helm, had claimed to have seen his father-in-law in the mast, whilst another claimed to see a baby elephant splashing around in the Atlantic and merely thought “a funny place to put a baby elephant” before continuing on their travels. Dr. Benet came to the conclusion that: “Sailors today see, hear and dream in the same way as sailors of bygone times when in the same situation. The difference only lies in the interpretation of the experience.”

Although Star Clippers vessels provide a nod to a bygone era of sailing, you can rest assured that each itinerary will involve smooth sailing and relaxing destinations. Whether you want to enjoy cruising the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, around Cuba, or across the Atlantic, an authentic sailing experience with Star Clippers is one you will never forget.

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